In your photos, check for the peregrine among the ducks, says Chris Chappell.
Whilst we are in mid winter, there is always plenty to see in the natural world, and soon the longer days will make it easier to get out to enjoy the countryside. Many birds will sing on the better days. Robin, dunnock, great tit, wren and many others will often perch on a high point as they establish territories. The song thrush will join in later in the month. Starlings chatter noisily in large groups as they gather in a tree or on telegraph wires prior to heading to roost en masse. Starlings often mimic other bird calls, which can be misleading, the plaintiff cry of a buzzard is often included in their repertoire. This early bird song is in preparation for the spring and the breeding season.
Goldcrests may be seen searching the branches of cypress trees for insect larvae. They are fond of these evergreens for food and for shelter on cold nights. The smallest European bird, our native population of goldcrests is joined by a huge migration from the east, some from as far as Russia, an astonishing feat when you consider they weigh just 6g.
On the fields and moors, huge flocks of lapwing (or peewit) have arrived from the north, outnumbering our dwindling native population by a factor of three to one. At times they fill the skies, wheeling acrobatically, and mewing loudly. They are quick to take fright, particularly if a predatory raptor appears, rising in unison from the ground, calling noisily, but soon settle again. The lapwings feed on the marshy ground, probing for worms and insects. Somerset is a key county for their winter migration. Individually, they are remarkable looking birds, with an impressive crest, and subtle myriad colours in the iridescent scalloped back feathers. The lapwing are frequently joined by flocks of golden plover, sometimes in thousands, a similarly sized bird to the lapwing, mainly speckled brown with pale underparts in winter plumage. The golden plover have a distinctive, rather plaintive high-pitched two-tone call.
Winter duck numbers are now established in great flocks on the flooded fields and moors. Watched from a hide, they make quite a spectacle, feeding voraciously, while the combined squeaks grunts and whistles of teal, shoveler and wigeon make an entertaining soundtrack. Bird-watching demands patience, and quiet. Be prepared to sit and wait to see what develops, from time to time the ducks will be spooked by a passing sparrowhawk or diving peregrine falcon, and there will be a great splash and clatter of wings, as they rise in unison, calling loudly in alarm. A quick circuit of the open water and they will soon settle again, landing with feet and wings out to slow their movement. At other times, the birds will settle down to a mass preening session, which involves a lot of noisy splashing around. This is very amusing to watch, as they contort themselves to reach every feather. Preening is vital for all birds, but all the more essential for wetland birds, and a major part of their daily routine. As with most birds, oil is produced in a gland under the tail, and this is spread throughout the plumage using the beak, waterproofing the feathers.
Thrushes and blackbirds will be seen feasting on the berry crop while it lasts. Yew, hawthorn and holly provide the bulk of the supply, along with a variety of ornamental shrubs. You may see blackbirds, redwings, fieldfares, pigeons and finches all taking the yew fruits in your local churchyard, where old trees carry a good crop. The first signs of spring will soon appear, snowdrops and some species of bulbs will make an appearance by the month end, giving us hope for the coming year.
More unusual birds seen recently include the very rare hen harrier, Whooper and Bewicks swans, spoonbill and crossbill.
Warblers in winter
Most warbler species have long since flown south for the winter, but increasingly some species are remainers, taking advantage of milder, shorter winters here. Over the past 45 years the Cetti's warbler has became a year round resident in many parts of England, and is now common where the habitat is suitable. They like reed beds, large and small, and copses and scrub near water. Cetti's will call all year round on fine days, they are furtive warblers, but noisy, so you may be startled by their explosive call, but barely see the bird itself. It is a very smart bird dark brown and paler underneath, with a wide tail, rather like a large wren.
The chiff chaff is now a common over wintering warbler, not normally heard singing in the depths of winter, but as soon as there is a hint of spring, you may hear their distinctive call. They are pretty, delicate birds, shades of olive green with a small eye stripe and dark legs. Very similar to the willow warbler, but this species does not normally stay for the winter months.
And the other common winter warbler is the blackcap, now regularly seen on bird feeders and in gardens, the male with mushroom shades of brown, and a rich glossy black cap, the female a creamy brown head. However, it is likely that the blackcaps you see may come from the continent, to replace the summer visitors that have gone south for winter. Their exact movements are still the subject of study.
A walk on Shapwick Heath will usually be well rewarded by the great variety of birdlife to be seen. Marsh harriers quarter the reed beds looking for prey, their wings held in a distinctive vee shape, head down, scouring the terrain below. A nationally rare raptor, we are lucky to have a good population resident on the levels. Buzzard and kestrel are often seen hunting for prey. As well as the winter ducks, Shapwick attracts a number of rare bird species, currently there is a chance of seeing a glossy ibis, whooper swans or even a short eared owl. But for those who just want a good walk, there is a lot to explore, but at this time of year you may need wellies if you venture far. Look out for roe deer, gazing at you from a safe distance. If you are lucky an otter may cross your path.
Photography and ID
One of the benefits of digital photography is that it enables you to capture what you have seen, and to quickly use the picture to identify the species seen. Shots of large flocks of birds often turn out to contain some surprises when examined in detail on your computer. A classic example is to find a peregrine in amongst the ducks and waders that have been put to flight. And even the experts use this process to pin down some of the trickier identity challenges, but it is a good learning tool for any newcomers to wildlife watching. During periods of harsh weather wildlife tends to be less cautious of presence of humans, as they are focussed on finding food, and easier to approach, and to capture on disc..
Wintry weather also provides great artistic scope for the photographer, as cobwebs are covered by frost, or as ice creates extraordinary patterns in the puddles. Misty mornings in the Somerset countryside make stunning landscapes, with a few old oaks or willows adding to the scene.
All photographs courtesy of Chris Chappell.